cover image Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West

Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West

Timothy Egan. Alfred A. Knopf, $25 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40024-7

In a freewheeling, deeply meditative journey across ""the big empty"" (the 11 contiguous states west of the 100th Meridian), Egan, the Pacific Northwest correspondent for the New York Times, attempts to understand the American West, a place caught between myth and modernity. Beginning in Jackson Hole, Wyo., at a gathering of writers, ranchers and Native Americans debating ""the next hundred years in the American West,"" Egan sets out across the vast landscape, using a different city as a jumping-off point in each chapter. What emerges is a portrait of the new West constantly at odds with the old: defiant cattlemen fight to preserve their dying industry, passing protective laws in the name of ""custom and culture""; the residents of Butte, Mont., wait for the toxic waste from a huge abandoned copper mine to overflow and destroy the once-prosperous city; and everywhere ambitious communities such as Las Vegas scramble for more of the precious water that would bring life to the desert--life, that is, in the form of residential complexes with lush grass lawns. Egan's travelogue occasionally ties itself in knots, shifting continuously from past to present in an effort to evoke the multilayered history of the area. But his love for the land is tangible and his erudition impressive. Alongside tales of Indians ousted from their land and corporate plundering are striking factoids (e.g., Ted Turner now owns 1.5% of the state of New Mexico) and shadowy chapters in history, like the 1857 Mountain Meadow Massacre in St. George, Utah, in which over 120 Arkansas emigrants were murdered by Mormon ""rescuers"" in an attack ordered by church officials, according to Egan. If any effort to capture the American West on the printed page is as futile as the title of this book suggests, Egan's sobering and honest picture at least succeeds in conveying its vitality and myriad contradictions. (Sept.)